Monday, November 30, 2009

Lies I tell to soldiers

I don't tell the lies directly, but politicians and poets tell them for me.
  1. We will remember your sacrifice forever. Since we ask for absolute sacrifice from soldiers, sailors, and combat aviators, we offer them unlimited memory. But while many of us make an effort remember the men and women who sacrificed their lives on our behalf, wars fade into history, and thus, sadly, irrelevance over at most ten or fifteen generations. Since most of the young men we send off to die in war give up any hope of making a mark on the world by something other than their sacrifice, we owe them the truth.
  2. You died in a noble and necessary cause. Most Canadian soldiers who died over the past century have died in worthy causes. But a dishonesty at the heart of this statement poisons it, because we would ask our soldiers to die even in bad cause. So many people just like ourselves have sent their children to die in manifestly unjust causes over the centuries that it would take extreme egotism to believe we would not do the same. I remember a Remembrance Day hymn from long ago: "tranquil you lie, your knightly virtue proved, your memory hallowed in the land you loved", that captures the problem perfectly. It implies that all soldiers fighting for a cause they love prove their virtue and earn the love of their compatriots. But in saying that soldiers who died for a cause they believed in deserve honour in memory, even if they died for Hitler's Germany, we contradict the argument that the soldiers we and our forbears sent to die did so in a noble, or at least a necessary, cause.
  3. We will put an end to war after this one. Fewer politicians have told this lie recently; I do not know whether I should welcome a break from hypocrisy, or despair at the thought that so many people seem comfortable at the thought of war as a means of settling political disputes going on into the indefinite future. Whatever politicians today have taken to saying, though, millions of young men still lie under graves in Flanders from two wars which politicians promised them would end war. Every time we go to war either reluctantly or eagerly, we break faith with two generations of young men, who went through horrors so that we could have lasting peace. 
I also tell soldiers two things that definitely are not lies:
  1. Thank you for your service. While I wish fervently and work for an end to all war, I know that it will take hard work and struggle to accomplish it. How can I not honour the impulse that leads men and women to service and sacrifice?
  2. I wish you safe return. May you come home whole in body and mind, to a warm welcome.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A religious argument for same-sex marriage

A few days ago, I posted about the temporal argument for same-sex marriage. Since the secular debate about same-sex marriage in Canada has pretty much ended, I thought I would take on the more important issue that still faces Canadians and others of faith: what does the Creator, who created us man and woman, but quite possibly also Gay and straight, wants for us.

I believe this: the Christian church should affirm and give thanks for loving and committed and caring relationships, same-sex and otherwise. In Mark 12:29-31, Jesus says: Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ (NRSV) The Gospels make clear that no commandment can contradict these; that any interpretation of the scriptures that would allow us to act in a less than loving manner to our neighbour must necessarily contain an error. Luke records Jesus's answer to the question "who is my neighbour?" with an answer that takes us to the heart of the question: what does the Creator want us to do for one another. He says (Luke 10:30-37, NRSV) "...a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii,* gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’ In other words, Jesus sets the standard of love for neighbour as practical compassion. Nor does Luke speak alone here: Matthew, in one of the few places where the gospels record Our Lord speaking in uncompromising terms of condemnation and judgment, says that Christ will call out as blessed those who have visited the despised and the outcast in prison and in sickness, shared food and shelter with them, and by doing so will have done so to Him. (Matthew 25:31-46)

What does this mean when we confront someone in a faithful, committed relationship with someone whom they deeply love, asking for our blessing? Consider the parable of the Good Samaritan, the summary of the law, or Jesus's teaching us about how He will judge the nations: these lessons do not suggest to me that we should say to people, sorry, you do the wrong thing with your pelvis, and the person you love has the wrong chromosome. And I emphasize once again: these lessons go to the heart of the Gospel message. Mark and Luke both drive home the point that the Great commandments of Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19:18 make up the heart of the Christian ethical message. I do not believe that condemning two people in a loving relationship accords with the spirit of these commandments, or with Jesus's teachings about them.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A field guide to dud arguments: the temporal red herring

A long time ago, I used to participate in a usenet forum on capital punishment. That experience gave me an up-close view of all the common logical fallacies, and I eventually developed a list of "dud" arguments: arguments made (by both sides) which contained one or more logical fallacies.

I hope to make this the first of a series of web-log posts exploring bad logic as I encounter it today, in issues of municipal government, in provincial issues, and national and international issues as well.

Over the past year, I have repeatedly heard variants of the phrase: "you can't turn back the clock". It frequently appears in arguments about modes of transportation, where opponents of cycling have attempted to paint the bicycle as a "nineteenth century" mode of transportation, and advocates for "developing" Toronto's port lands have attempted to argue that marine transportation has likewise had its day.

Like all really good duds, this argument does not advance a simple falsehood, so much as fail to apply an important truth in a clear manner. As circumstances change, the solutions we use logically have to change as well. And since all change happens as a function of time, we easily gravitate to the use of time as a substitute for change. But an argument based on nothing but time, such as referring to a technology as "nineteenth century", with the actual changes that have taken place since the nineteenth century unmentioned, qualifies as a dud. Arguments against relying on bicycles for transport may exist, although I have yet to read any good ones, but the words "nineteenth century" do not, in any sense, qualify. The same holds for marine transportation, and many other technologies and customs. The changes that time brings may indeed create good arguments for doing (or not doing) things in a certain way. The passage of time itself does not.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A disturbing juxtaposition

  • A motorist beats a cyclist so badly the cyclist loses a tooth. A passing class catches the incident on video. A judge acquits the motorist, on the ground that the cyclist impeded the motorist's "right of way", and the motorist feared the cyclist might "assault" his car.
  • David Chen, a shopkeeper in Kensington market apprehends a serial thief who has, earlier that day, stolen sixty dollars (almost a day's wages for one employee) worth of merchandise. The crown charges him with assault, forcible confinement, and kidnapping.
These two decisions seem troublesomely inconsistent. Our society might decide that citizens must never use force against one another under any circumstances; that even a shopkeeper, working on thin margins, may not use force against thieves who torment him. But in that case, a motorist would never have the right to use force in the case of a minor traffic dispute.

Alternatively, we could decide to allow citizens to use "reasonable force" to defend their right of way and their vehicles. But if a motorist has a right to beat a person merely out of a concern that this person may dent his car, surely a storekeeper has the right to use force against a person who has actually stolen from him.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms speaks of not bringing the administration of justice into disrepute. But those who administer justice have to do more than simply avoid dishonesty; they have to follow a consistent set of rules. They have to give those of us whom the system purports to protect reason to believe that if we act in good faith, and follow the law as the courts have interpreted it, we can expect the police and the courts to uphold our rights, whether we suffer an assault or stand accused of one. If the courts, meaning judges, crown attorneys, and the police, do not follow consistent principles, then people will simply stop relying on them.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

November 11

To begin at the beginning: Basil Launcelot Cumpston, my great uncle, fatally wounded near Bullecourt, 1917; John Cox, my cousin, died in when his Dakota went down in Myanmar, 1945. George Weber and Tom Fox, CPT colleagues, died in Iraq, 2003 and 2006. Andrew Olmsted, a US Army major and a web log author I admired, died Iraq 2008. Relatives, colleagues and friends who have sacrificed their lives for a better world link all of us to war, and we have come around, once again, to the day of the year which we set aside to remember them.

The hardest part of remembering is reconciling our debt to the men and women who died with our determination to avoid sending our own children to die in the future. I and millions of others can say of our relatives who gave their lives in the Allied Cause during the Second World War, that they died in a noble cause. But then we come face to face with an uncomfortable truth: good men and women only die in noble causes because bad men find it easy to trick or force people to kill, and die, for bad causes. If so many men had not followed Adolf Hitler and Hideki Tōjō, millions of men and women would not have had to go off to war. And facing that truth, too, we confront another: advancing the noble cause Allied soldiers, sailors and aviators fought and died for required years of struggle that went on years after the war and well beyond the borders of Germany or Japan. The militarism of Imperial Japan or the genocidal fury of National Socialism were only extreme cases of racist ideologies that stained all Western societies. Denazification did not only happen in Berlin and Nuremberg; Martin Luther King's march on Selma, decolonization in Africa and Asia, First Nations struggles in Canada, all formed an essential part of the process which, we can hope, will prevent genocidal fascism from ever rising again.

The clash of arms only begins the process of building a better world. If we carry on most of the work without violence, we must still commit to it, give our all, and accept the reality that humanity will never move forward without struggle and sacrifice. And so today we will remember those who struggled and laid down their lives, whether with guns or with empty hands. And we too will pick up the task they laid down, and do our best to carry forward the work of building a better world.

Monday, November 09, 2009

A practical and secular argument for same-sex marriage

After the voters of Maine rejected same-sex marriage, a majority vote that restricted the rights of a minority, and one commentator has even suggested that majority vote determines the truth. It doesn't. And in truth, we have very good arguments, both practical and secular, as well as ethical and religious, that same-sex marriage makes sense for Gay and Lesbian people, and we should support it.

The simplest, and I believe the most compelling, practical and secular argument for supporting same-sex marriage goes like this: the alternatives don't work. We have tried the only alternatives to accepting and celebrating same-sex relationships: special status and repression, and both have failed catastrophically. Repression of Gay and Lesbian relationship through laws restricting acts of love between adults no longer passes constitutional muster in the United States (and nobody has even tried to get such a law past the Canadian Charter of Rights). But legal rights aside, repression has had such disastrous results that no responsible government, tasked with preserving a working economy, would engage in it. Consider the case of Alan Turing, the mathematician who laid the foundation of computer science, and later put his discoveries to work constructing the computers that broke the Nazi enigma codes. In 1952, the British police discovered he had a gay relationship, and hounded him to his death. That single act of misplaced morality cost the British the services of one of the twentieth century's great geniuses, and probably any chance at keeping the lead in computer development. Killing Alan Turing probably cost the British economy a trillion pounds over the last half century. Quite apart from the monstrous cruelty of the treatment Turing suffered, millions of other people lost opportunities because of what the British authorities did to him. Neither government nor industry will take these risks today, which explains why private employers moved ahead of governments in support of committed same-sex relationships; they want to attract and keep skilled and talented workers.

Most opponents of same-sex marriage no longer even try to defend the history of repression; they appear to accept the ugly images of police harassment and humiliation of Gay men and Lesbians belong to the same lamentable past as the routine humiliation of women and racialized people. But they still insist that recognition of the rights of Gay men and Lesbians must stop short of marriage. Regardless of the ethics of insisting that any group of people settle for second-class status, the status of outsiders for Gay men and Lesbians has not worked out well. Equality, after all, carries with it responsibility; if we choose not to accept Gay men and Lesbians as equals, we diminish their responsibility to the rest of us. We can hardly blame those we deny the institutions that foster permanent connections for behaving promiscuously. A line from the heartbreakingly beautiful movie Outrageous! contains a reminder, grim in hindsight, of the days of irresponsible promiscuity, when one character says to two handsome young men: "I'll have to take both of you; I'm too horny to make up my mind." In 1977, it seemed that the Gay community could indulge such behaviour; it seemed that the straight community could keep marriage as "our" institution, and indulge a sense of superiority into the bargain. Today, we know we never had that luxury: if we exclude anyone from the rights and responsibilities of life, everyone faces the consequences.

Today, it seems that the best way of expressing those responsibilities, and the sense of belonging that comes with them, comes with participation in, and affirmation of, marriage. To deny Gay men and Lesbians this choice seems, in the end, a self-defeating choice.